Love Thy Lawyer – Judge Delbert Gee – Transcript
Louis Goodman 00:07
In collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association. This is Love Thy Lawyer, where we talk with members of the ACBA about their lives and legal careers. I’m Louis Goodman, the host of the LTL podcast. And yes, I’m a member of the Alameda County Bar Association. Appointed to the bench in 2002, he currently serves as a judge presiding over civil matters in the Alameda County Superior Court. He has previously presided over probate, guardianship and dependency matters in addition to both felony and misdemeanor departments in the criminal arena. He served as a deputy district attorney in Ventura County. He handled major civil matters as a partner in a San Francisco law firm. He has decades of professional, civil and community service. Judge Delbert Gee, welcome to the Alameda County Bar Association and the Lovely Thy Lawyer podcast.
Judge Delbert Gee 01:13
Lou. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Louis Goodman 01:16
It’s a real privilege to talk to you, your honor. We’ve known each other for a while, and I’ve always enjoyed talking to you whether it’s in court or at some lawyer function, social event, and it really is great that you’re joining us here on this podcast. Judge, how long have you been a lawyer?
Judge Delbert Gee 01:35
Well, I was a lawyer for 22 years before I got on the bench and as far as being a judge, I’ve finished 19 years.
Louis Goodman 01:45
Wow. So you’ve got like about 40 years of practice.
Judge Delbert Gee 01:50
Getting there, yes.
Louis Goodman 01:53
Where are you from originally?
Judge Delbert Gee 01:55
Well, I was born in Oakland. My parents were immigrants from China, so that makes me a first-generation American. My dad came over in 1938 on a steamship when he was only 16 years old. He didn’t speak any English, he didn’t have any money, and never had a chance to go to college. When he came to this country, his first job was as a house boy for a family in Piedmont. My mom survived the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during the war, but after the war her parents had passed away, she was an orphan. She ended up going to a school that was run by Baptist missionaries. The communists were coming and she needed to get out of the country. So one of the missionaries running the place actually wrote a letter to the Chinese Baptist church in San Francisco saying, “I’ve got this really nice young girl who needs to get out of the country. Are there any nice Chinese boys who would like to meet this person?” So they got a hold of my dad and in 1949, my dad starts a correspondence with my mom across the ocean. Ultimately, my father proposed to my mother by letter. My mother said yes and in 1949 she came to this country, she had no money. The only person she knew was her fiance, who she’d never met in person. I remember asking my mom, “Wait, you married dad after having never met him, did you even know what he looked like?” And my mom said, “Well, we exchanged photographs.” I think it all worked out because they were married for, I think 62 years until my dad passed away.
Louis Goodman 03:53
Do you have siblings too?
Judge Delbert Gee 03:54
Yeah, I do. I have two brothers and two sisters. And my younger sister is actually a lawyer.
Louis Goodman 04:01
When you were growing up, did you go to high school in Oakland?
Judge Delbert Gee 04:04
No. What happened is that I grew up in the neighborhood in South Hayward where my parents had moved to. And when I was there, even though the school I went to, the elementary school was all white, I grew up in a neighborhood, it was a brand new neighborhood, brand new homes, but the street I lived on, the street next to us was all Asian. It was like all Asian, alright? And so you’re a kid growing up, you don’t know any better or you think that’s kinda the way it is. It’s all Asian. And then, when I was nine years old, my parents moved to Livermore. And in Livermore, of course, I was one of very few Asians in school and I ended up graduating from Livermore high school. But you know, you don’t think about those sorts of things. You think that’s just the way it is. Then I went to Davis for college and I majored in political science, but even though, well, I took classes in Asian American studies because I wanted to find out a little more about my place in the world.
Louis Goodman 05:07
When you got out of college and graduated from Davis, you ultimately went to law school. Did you go directly to law school or did you take some time off?
Judge Delbert Gee 05:17
I went directly to law school primarily because I didn’t really know what else to do.
Louis Goodman 05:22
Where’d you go?
Judge Delbert Gee 05:24
I went to Santa Clara.
Louis Goodman 05:26
What was it that prompted you to become a lawyer and when did you first start thinking, you know, I want to be a lawyer, I want to go to law school, this is what I want to do with my life?
Judge Delbert Gee 05:38
Well, I’d like to say something inspirational, Lou, but I’m not able to. Because the reality is I went to law school because I was a political science major. In college, I went right from high school to college, right from college to law school. And to be honest, Lou, I just didn’t know what else to do. It seemed like a good avenue to try. Back then it seemed like it was cheap enough that you could at least try it out and see if it worked out. And that’s really how I ended up in law school. I really didn’t know what else to do.
Louis Goodman 06:11
How did you end up at the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office?
Judge Delbert Gee 06:14
I graduated from school, from Santa Clara. As you know, I didn’t have any special skills at all except the fact I went to law school. So I really was desperate for a job. I had no connections, no contacts, no money. I was applying everywhere I could for pretty much any job I could in California. And I applied to be a DA in Ventura County and they ended up giving me an offer, which I took. And it was a county that I’d never been to in my life, didn’t know a single person in the county, but I figured, you know, I’m young, I’m single, let’s go give it a shot.
Louis Goodman 06:54
Tell us a little bit about your civil practice after you left the Ventura County District Attorney and before you got on the bench.
Judge Delbert Gee 07:01
I started off in a medium-sized firm of about 50 attorneys in San Francisco. And then I moved to one of these big 200 person firms in San Francisco. And I was there for a couple of years, and then my friends, who I practiced with in the smaller firm, had started their own firm and they asked me to join them as a partner. And then my last two years of practice, I was basically a solo practitioner, which I enjoyed immensely. And then I got appointed to the bench after only two years.
Louis Goodman 07:31
Well, what prompted you to seek an appointment?
Judge Delbert Gee 07:35
You know, when I started thinking about it, I had only been in practice for maybe five years, but I started thinking about it because I was in court all the time as a DA. When I became a civil attorney, I did a lot of litigation, in fact, all litigation and I was in front of judges a lot. And I just thought to myself, “That’s a cool job. I think I can do it.”
Louis Goodman 08:00
Well, is it a cool job?
Judge Delbert Gee 08:01
You know, it’s a great job because, as I heard one judge say, “You know, you get paid pretty well and the only thing they ask you is to be fair.”
Louis Goodman 08:15
Do you think the legal system in general is fair?
Judge Delbert Gee 08:19
Well, I think I can say with some certainty that at least in Alameda County, I think we have a very fair system.
Louis Goodman 08:26
Is there anything that you would change about the way the legal system works in either the civil or the criminal side of things?
Judge Delbert Gee 08:33
Well, I wish our courts had more money. Right now we are really hurting because of the pandemic. And the way we’re hurting is that we just don’t have enough money, or we don’t have the ability to keep court personnel like clerks in the courtroom and clerks in the back offices, to keep them employed in our courts. And we’re very shorthanded.
Louis Goodman 08:58
If a young person was just coming out of law school and starting a legal career, what sort of advice would you give that individual?
Judge Delbert Gee 09:08
Well, it depends. If they’re going into the civil world, I would have to say that you have to be really cognizant of the fact that somewhere along the way, probably pretty soon, it’ll be necessary for you to demonstrate your abilities to go out and get new business, get new clients. And you’ve got to be able to figure out a way not only to how to do that, but you know, what kind of time you want to spend outside of the office to try and make that happen. Because there are a lot of lawyers out there looking for business and it does take an extra effort to be able to generate income.
Louis Goodman 09:44
What about as a career, if someone was, let’s say, coming out of college a little earlier in their life and they were thinking about going to law school and becoming a practicing attorney. Is that something that you would recommend?
Judge Delbert Gee 09:57
Well, I have two grown daughters and neither one of them had any interest in being a lawyer.
Louis Goodman 10:04
Well, speaking of your family, how did practicing law and for that matter, being a judge, how has that fit into your life and your family life?
Judge Delbert Gee 10:15
Oh, well it fit in really well when I was a new judge, because at that point in time my kids were younger. When you’re a judge, you have a certain amount of control over your calendar so it gave me a lot of flexibility there so that I could go to, my daughters were into sports and so I could spend time with them at their games watching them. And that was frankly very helpful when I was a judge, because you know, you have a lot of flexibility.
Louis Goodman 10:46
Have you ever thought about any other kind of career? I mean, if you couldn’t be a judge or a lawyer, is there something that you think, “Oh, that’s something I would like to do.”?
Judge Delbert Gee 10:55
When I was in high school, I was in my senior year on the school newspaper and I just thought it was the greatest thing. And as you know, because of my background, all I did was, you know, went from high school to college, to law school, to be a lawyer. So I didn’t really have an opportunity to explore anything else. And I’ve always thought that if I wasn’t a lawyer, I probably would have been a journalist. The thing that appeals to me about being a journalist is being able to explain things, complicated things and explain them to the public, which is something that I had to do as a lawyer. And also as a judge trying to explain my rulings for example, as best I could.
Louis Goodman 11:37
What about recreational pursuits? Is there anything that you enjoy doing when you’re off the bench, when you’re out of court in order to clear your head a little bit?
Judge Delbert Gee 11:47
You know, I used to be involved in lots of sports. But as I’ve gotten older, I spend more time watching them. For example, I was a big Raiders fan since 1966, that’s probably because my dad was an original season ticket holder to the Raiders in 1960. And even though they’ve left for Las Vegas, I can’t help myself, I’m still rooting for them. You know, I watch the Warriors all the time because when they won the championship in 1974 I got hooked for life and fortunately I had to sit through 40 years of frustration before recent days. But you know, when you go through that and when the Warriors started winning again recently it forced me to go back and look at those teams that I watched for 40 years and realize how bad they were that made me appreciate how good this team is.
Louis Goodman 12:34
What sort of things keep you up at night?
Judge Delbert Gee 12:36
Oh, you know what, a real problem with being a judge is that, I think I’ve heard this said that your knowledge base is like a mile wide and an inch deep. And what keeps me up is trying to keep up with the attorneys in terms of understanding what’s going on in the law, understanding what’s going on with the case. Some of these cases can be very complicated and so sometimes I’m concerned, you know, am I understanding what’s going on here?
Louis Goodman 13:00
Let’s say you and your wife came into some real money. Let’s say 3 or 4 billion dollars. What, if anything, would you do differently in your life?
Judge Delbert Gee 13:09
I’ve given this some thought because actually, Lou, I play the lottery once in a while. And at least for as far as I’m concerned, I don’t think I would change my life. You know, I’d take a few million for myself, but the vast majority of it, I would set up a foundation and give it away.
Louis Goodman 13:31
Let’s say you had a magic wand and there was one thing in the world that you could change, in the legal system and the world in general. What one thing would you want to change?
Judge Delbert Gee 13:41
It’s a shame when people can’t afford to hire a lawyer, it would be a better world if people had lawyers. People generally do better with lawyers than representing themselves. So if there’s some way to do that, I think that would be a good thing.
Louis Goodman 13:56
Judge, is there anything else that you wanted to talk about before we open it up to questions?
Judge Delbert Gee 14:01
Well, I’m sure there are going to be a lot of questions about how the civil courts are operating in this county. I can tell you that from my own personal experience in department 514 in Hayward, that I have not been back to court since the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve been doing everything remotely, like I am now and I think generally speaking, it’s going surprisingly well. Not so much for trials, but for everything else it’s going quite well.
Louis Goodman 14:28
We were talking about this a little bit before we started the Zoom call. What’s your notion about video conferencing being used as we go forward, as we come out of COVID? Presumably we’re going to come out of COVID at some point.
Judge Delbert Gee 14:46
You know, it’s something we have talked about as a court in Alameda County and there seems to be, I think, quite a bit of interest by both the judges, as well as the bar for non-evidentiary hearings, such as case management conferences and motions to continue to be heard remotely. But everybody is anxious to try and get back in the courtroom for evidentiary hearings, such as trials, be they court or jury trials. There just isn’t any substitute for that.
Louis Goodman 15:20
We have a question from Jerry Fong. What is the status of civil jury trials going out, given the pandemic? Any thoughts about the future in 2022?
Judge Delbert Gee 15:35
I’ll answer the second question first. The answer is we don’t know. I know that we felt optimistic last year when it seemed like the Delta variant was fading away, but with Omicron coming, all those plans have gone up in smoke. In fact, I don’t even hear my fellow judges even really talking about what happens afterward. It’s almost like we don’t want to jinx ourselves by trying to plan for an optimistic conclusion. So we don’t know.
Louis Goodman 16:08
What’s going on with civil jury trials right now?
Judge Delbert Gee 16:11
Well, that’s a very good question. I get asked that quite a bit. We are doing them remotely. I got one in November, it was an asbestos trial. It took a little over two weeks to go through well over 150 jurors entirely on Zoom, to try and select a jury. It was a difficult experience, it was challenging, I would say.
Louis Goodman 16:39
Erica Dennings, can you unmute? I’m sure you have a comment or a question.
Erica Dennings 16:43
Good afternoon, Judge Gee. Thank you for being here. What advice could you give to people who maybe are interested in applying to be a judge? Are there things, I know you did it in a different era, a different governor, but can you just give some general advice that you think would be helpful?
Judge Delbert Gee 17:06
I have a lot of advice because I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to mentor people to get on the bench. And I fall back on my own personal experience because when I started this idea about trying to become a judge I didn’t know anybody. I had no connections, no contacts, no nothing. And I had to figure out what to do to try and increase my chances of getting appointed to the bench and it took me 15 years. So I really like to talk to attorneys who are young, who have time to try and figure out how to get on the bench instead of people who are trying to get on the bench tomorrow, because it’s really, at that point, given they’re thinking it’s too late for them to do anything differently than they’ve already done. But for a young attorney, who’s just thinking about it, of course, you need to find out if that’s something you really want to do, but in terms of the process, the first thing I recommend to anyone who is interested is you go to the governor’s website and download the application. Then you look at the application and you say to yourself, “What do I need to do in the future so I can fill out this application better than I can right now, if I tried to fill that out?” They ask you all these questions about your legal experience including your trial experience. I remember the question I got stumped with was, “Name the honors and awards you’ve received as an attorney.” or something like that. And I didn’t have anything. So, you know, think questions like that. If you get a chance to think about it years in advance, by the time you actually fill it out for real, maybe you’ve had an opportunity to fill in those blanks a little better.
Louis Goodman 18:55
Yeah, I think that’s great advice. I really do. Lisa Simmons, do you have a question or comment for Judge Gee?
Lisa Simmons 19:04
Oh, sure. Always good to see you, Louis, hi. Judge Gee, thank you so much for being here. I love that you have an adventurous spirit and are just ready to take a stab at new things throughout your life. With your parents being immigrants, Chinese-American, is there anything you think specifically with your culture and heritage and being the child of immigrants that really provided strength to you as a judge and through the legal system that you might identify specifically?
Judge Delbert Gee 19:39
I don’t think there’s any question in growing up, that my parents had a strong work ethic that they passed on to me. That work ethic in part translates itself to the fact that, you know, when I graduated from high school, there wasn’t any question in their mind or my mind that I was going to go to college. Hey, Lou, I wanted to add on to the answer that I gave earlier about, you know, how to prepare yourself for maybe trying to get appointed to the bench. One other thing I’d tell, especially attorneys who are actually in the process of filling out the application, and they’re really thinking about it. I tell them of course, with the application that it’s just gotta be perfect. I mean, it’s gotta be perfect not just in substance, but just the way it looks. The formatting has got to be just right. It’s just gotta be perfect. I mean, I heard a previous judicial former secretary say that they’ve never appointed anybody to the bench who had a typographical error in their application. But the other thing I mentioned as well, which is a little bit of an odd way of looking at things, but, you know, ultimately if you do put your name in, you would like to get to the evaluation process put on by the JNE, the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Committee by the state bar, JNE commission. The first thing they ask you to do is to send in something like 75 names and emails of attorneys who they’re going to probably send questionnaires to. So what I tell attorneys who are interested in, when they’re getting close to that point where they’re putting their name in, they oughta sit down and they oughta get in front of the computer and start typing out the names of everybody that they are 100% dead bang sure righteous that they were going to say that you walk on water, without a doubt, okay? And just start typing them out on a piece of paper and you should be able to type out, I tell them probably 125 names without stopping. I mean, you really, you know, it should be no problem for you to do that because if you can’t do that, if it takes you a while to come up with a bunch of names of people who you know are going to say good things, then maybe you don’t know enough people yet.
Louis Goodman 22:01
Well, in some ways running for judges is similar to the appointments process or the appointments process is similar to running for judge in that it really is pretty political, isn’t it?
Judge Delbert Gee 22:14
Well, sure. Because if you’re running for office, you’re up for election, you’re competing against probably one or two or three other people. Yeah, you gotta get out there and you gotta hustle. You gotta get to know people. But another thing about this process in terms of getting an appointment and going out there and hustling around, knowing people, it’s kind of like what you have to do as an attorney to generate new business. Because, as an attorney, you don’t get business going home after work and sitting in front of the TV, watching, you know, and relaxing. You gotta get out there, you gotta go to meetings, you gotta go to this, you gotta go to that, you know, to meet people because you never know when your next client is going to show up and how that’s gonna happen. Especially for those who have more of the general practice that appeals to the public, you never know. It might be a probate, it might be a family law case. You never know where they come from.
Louis Goodman 23:04
Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that’s been so difficult during this last couple of years of COVID, is that as attorneys, we haven’t been able to go out and do the kind of networking that is important to our practices. And very frankly, most of us really kind of like to do.
Judge Delbert Gee 23:23
Yeah, when you become a judge, you want to get out there and do things. You want to do a lot of work in the nonprofit arena if you can. But you know, you’ve got to remember one thing, statistically speaking, your chances of getting appointed are pretty small. And so if you don’t like what you’re doing, if you don’t like going out there hustling for new clients, and doing charitable work, if that doesn’t appeal to you, then if you’re the kind of person who does it just to try and get an an appointment, well, you could be very sorely disappointed and feel like you’ve wasted a lot of hours, doing good deeds that you really didn’t want to do.
Louis Goodman 24:05
Julianna Rivera Maul 24:07
Hi Judge Gee. Julianna Rivera Maul. I have a question as a solo practitioner that’s interested in getting into litigation. If you have any tips or guidance on resources for an attorney with some litigation experience, but still limited and how to prepare your office to jump in?
Judge Delbert Gee 24:32
Probably the biggest disappointment I’ve had as a judge in civil is the fact that I get very well qualified, experienced lawyers who are really good people and they’re smart and they know their stuff and they appear in front of me for trial and they really don’t know how to try a case. There frankly is no substitute for a jury trial because it’s a whole different animal, but how young attorneys get jury trial experience in the civil world is a big mystery. Sorry, I can’t be more optimistic or helpful about that.
Julianna Rivera Maul 25:11
No, I think that helps. I mean, just jump in, in a way. Thank you.
Louis Goodman 25:16
Judge Delbert Gee, thank you so much for joining us today at the Alameda County Bar Association and the Love Thy Lawyer podcast. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you, and I’ve certainly learned some interesting things about your life and career.
Judge Delbert Gee 25:32
It’s been an honor to be here. Thanks for having me.
Louis Goodman 25:35
That’s it for today’s edition of Love Thy Lawyer, in collaboration with the Alameda County Bar Association. Please visit the lovethylawyer.com website, where you can find links to all of our episodes. Also, please visit the Alameda County Bar Association website at acbanet.org, where you can find more information about our support of the legal profession, promoting excellence in the legal profession and facilitating equal access to justice.
Special thanks to ACBA staff and members Cailin Dahlin, Sayeed Randall,
Hadassah Hayashi, Vincent Tong and Jason Leong. Thanks to Joel Katz for music, Bryan
Matheson for technical support and Tracey Harvey. I’m Louis Goodman.
Judge Delbert Gee 26:36
I cannot tell you how many times we would have to say to the people on Zoom, “I can’t hear you. Please turn on your microphone.”